Top Drawer highlights and Whippets Welcome… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes picks some of his highlights from Top Drawer, which took place at London’s Olympia this week.

Trade show season is upon us – and luckily for me it starts with one of my favourite shows, Top Drawer.

Top Drawer is the show that makes me think quite seriously about opening a shop which sells giftware, greetings cards, homewares and books plus doubles up as a coffee shop. As I walk around Top Drawer I often muse over a prospective name for my never to be launched shop – my current working title is Whippets Welcome – I would like to think my shop would be pet friendly… that reminds me I would have to start stocking pet products!

The beauty of Top Drawer is that it is a very focused but comprehensive show that showcases a good range of product from suppliers which are creative and contemporary. Top Drawer also has a nice vibe to it with a good use of space and is well presented.

As noted in previous reports about Top Drawer it has traditionally been a light touch trade show for licensing, but I have noticed in recent years and specifically this year that there is more examples of licensed products being shown at the show. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this, but a couple of thoughts I had were that it reflects the fact that some suppliers are seeking out new retail customers beyond those that they have traditionally relied on in these more challenging times and I think it also reflects the fact that the dynamics of licensing are changing – the success of heritage brands has meant licensed products are now part of the product portfolio of companies which service the Top Drawer audience for example.

LL2It is always good to see your own products being promoted at a trade show and I was delighted to see The Doggy Baking Co. presenting its soon to be launched Wallace & Gromit Cheezy Cranberry Biscuit Mix – it is a bottled kit for making dog treats.

It is great to be working with it on this product as it is an innovative company which is developing new routes to market and creating some great new products. For example, it has worked with M&S and its Percy Pig and Colin the Caterpillar brands to create baking kits this Christmas – this was via sister company The Bottled Baking Co. It is also a company that has been recognised by the gift industry in the Gift of the Year Awards. The Wallace & Gromit product is a good example of how the nature of gifting is changing and reflects the fact that some retailers are looking for a blend of products to reflect changing consumer trends. Whippets Welcome would definitely stock the Wallace & Gromit Cheezy Cranberry Biscuit Mix.

LL1Top Drawer also provides a reminder that licensing comes from a myriad of different sources and can provide manufacturers with different ways of developing ranges. With this thought in mind I was interested to see a lovely range of ceramics developed with Keith Brymer Jones, who is part of the successful TV show The Great Pottery Showdown. This TV exposure has helped bring him to the attention of a wider audience, but he has had a very successful career as a potter and ceramic designer outside his TV work. His product was on the Forma stand and looked really good.

Keith Brymer Jones is a great example of a brand personality that brings authenticity to a range but also has a public profile that helps shine a light on the product range. Design wise the range seemed a good fit for Top Drawer. Another nice touch was that Forma was proudly promoting Keith’s book, Boy In A China Shop, and indeed gave me a copy of it. This was a nice way of drawing attention to Keith’s wider work and profile.

LL6I have always admired IF as a company. It has specialised in developing book and reading related accessories. It has used licensing including character licensing over the years, but has always struck me as a very focused and disciplined company in regards to licensing. It has used licensing sparingly but very well when it does dip into the licensing pool. The products are imaginative and use the chosen licence well.

At Top Drawer it was showcasing a broad range of products developed with the V&A Museum including notebooks, tech tidies, pen poches and bookmarks. Part of its stand display was a counter top display of the V&A product. It displayed well and from a retailer’s perspective IF was providing a ready to go retail solution and also one that made good use of display space. In current trading conditions, I imagine retailers are keen to make the most of their space and use it efficiently.

Likewise I was talking to PlayPress, a licensee for Shaun the Sheep and The Gruffalo, about its paper construction kits. Even though these are really well packaged products and are proving popular, it isn’t standing still retail wise. It is working with retailers to create new ways of displaying the product and also looking at smaller product formats. The former is to ensure, like IF, retailers can optimise their space and the latter is to be future proofed in terms of retail price points. PlayPress is a ‘new to licensing’ company which is using licensing strategically to broaden its reach and to tap into creative opportunities that suit the card construction kits well creatively.

LL3It was also interesting to see designer Eleanor Bowmer at Top Drawer. She had a very colourful and eyecatching stand featuring a blend of her own products and I believe some licensed lines. Eleanor Bowmer is a brand and designer that has had good recent success which has included licensing.

It was good to see the brand at Top Drawer and a good reminder that brand owners have to invest in their brand to ensure it keeps developing.

In the context of Top Drawer and the gift industry I am sure Eleanor Bowmer’s partners found it reassuring to see her backing her band at Top Drawer.

LL8Another product range that caught my eye colour wise was Bon Ton Toys’ range of Miffy soft toys. These were on the S C Brands stand which I believe is the UK distributor. The products are available in an array of very bright colours and fabrics. Fabrics include corduroy and also upcycled fabrics. This is a really good example of a product range that has been developed with a premium price and market in mind – I can imagine consumers buy into the range for gifting, but also for display and collecting purposes.

It has been developed in a way that is different to Rainbow Design’s Miffy range and I am sure from a brand owner’s point of view appeals as it is a product range that allows Miffy to reach a diverse range of retail distribution. It was good to see Rainbow Designs at Top Drawer not least as it is a company which supports licensing so well. Its plush range blends evergreen brands such as Mickey Mouse, Paddington and Peter Rabbit with characters sourced from the book world such as Guess How Much I Love You – the latter reflects the fact that retailers such as book retailers are now selling more than books and as such it makes good sense to develop products that suit those kind of outlets.

LL5I was also pleased to see Snoopy featuring on Rainbow Designs’ stand and interesting to see the design route taken with Snoopy – products included shaped ‘naptime cushions’ reflecting the fact that properties like Snoopy have dual appeal to younger consumers, but also teens and above. This is a reminder that licences can work at different ages but it is important to offer products that work across these markets – Snoopy has done well apparel wise and I am sure that has opened up opportunities for products like cushions which appeal to older consumers.

Noting the point made about the changes in book shops, but also thinking about where books can be sold it was good to see distributor Bookspeed at Top Drawer.

LL7Bookspeed works with publishers to curate book ranges for the gift trade, but also involves other suppliers to create a product mix that book and other retailers can buy into in a focused way. It acknowledges that book shops sell more than books but that books can be sold in a range of retailers – card shops are good examples of a retail channel that are selling books alongside their core product these days. Bookspeed’s display included a range of books and products from illustrator and designer Angela Harding. Bookspeed had made it easy for a retailer to buy into a range and had coordinated product such as stationery and calendars from licensees like Flametree. It is no surprise when you see this at a trade show that you then see products filtering into retail in a coordinated way. Recently I have seen rangers of Angela’s products in gift shops and book shops quite frequently – for example the gift shop at West Den Gardens in Sussex has a broad range of Angela’s greetings cards. The coordination by companies like Bookspeed is paying off.

LL4A final Top Drawer highlight was meeting Labre’s Hope. It is a social enterprise business which is seeking to help people experiencing homelessness in the UK. It has developed a partnership with charity CRISIS and is working with homeless people to provide work opportunities. Specifically it has developed a range of eco-friendly soap bars which are made by the homeless people they support. It gives individuals a job making the soap, offers them support and provide an employment coach. It is based in Rotherham and a great example of a company using the consumer products world as a platform to help people in a positive way. While more of a partnership than a licence it is a great example of how manufacturers can work collaboratively with charities and while doing so help the charity build awareness. It was really good to hear about Labre’s Hope and the work it is doing – the product is also really good and I would recommend it. Examples like this one and also the Baron’s Court Project which has worked in the greetings card space with homeless people are good ones and hopefully inspire those of us in the licensing world to think about how we can leverage the power of licensing for good.

I look forward to seeing you at next week’s Toy Fair and if you see me staring into space I am probably thinking about the colour scheme for Whippets Welcome!

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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